Isaiah Berlin was in my view the most distinguished political philosopher and historian of ideas of the 20th century. There is no thinker whose work, expressed in and lucid prose, I read with greater pleasure and whose ideas so convince me they are fundamentally right.
If I had to choose a single book to advise any young person interested in ideas to read it would be Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays On Liberty which consists of a magnificent introduction, alone worth its weight in intellectual gold, and essays on ‘Political Ideas in the 20th Century’, ‘Historical Inevitability’, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ and ‘John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life’. It would be worth anyone’s while to get a copy of this great book and go into a quiet room and read it and learn how men should aim to live together peacefully and productively in society.
And when you have the time go and read Berlin’s other works: essays collected in, among other books, Russian Thinkers, Concepts and Categories, Against the Current, Personal Impressions and The Crooked Timber of Humanity. I will be surprised if you do not come out of any quiet time spent with Isaiah Berlin convinced of the great truth expressed long ago by John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography: “…the importance to man and society…of giving full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions”. We have to hope that politicians who are empowered by our votes will find themselves so convinced.
Isaiah Berlin was in his age the most lucid enemy of the idea of total solutions. Any threatening sign of impending totalitarianism or authoritarianism was anathema to his way of thinking. Again and again he pointed out that there was no single remedy for the problems created by the muddle of life. Steadfastly he resisted any and all schemes, no matter how benevolently conceived, that set out to improve human nature collectively against its will. “It seems to me,” he wrote, “that the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all the diverse ends of men can be harmoniously realised is demonstrably false.”
From Parmenides to Marx thinkers have dreamed of some single principle, the single method, the single being, that would account for everything, bring everything that exists under some single, final dispensation. But Berlin declared, “The notion of total human fulfilment is a formal contradiction.” Society, not only as a practical matter but as a theoretical necessity, has to be pluralist. Reality is plural and the organization of society must follow reality.
The pluralism which Berlin preached was no easy gospel. “If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict – and of tragedy – can never be wholly eliminated from human life, either personal or social”. In the society he prized there was bound to be shadows as well as light but that was preferable by far to the darkness which inevitably besets any society organized to seek the single and ultimate solution. “One belief,” Berlin wrote, “more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals – justice or progress or the happiness of future generations or the sacred mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class or even liberty itself. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution.” There is no final solution that is not evil.
Berlin loathed nationalism taken to extremes: “the self adoration of peoples, their conviction of their own immeasurable superiority to others and consequent right to dominate them.” But he recognized nationalism’s legitimate claims. In response to oppression and exploitation a people desires recognition, the pride of solidarity and independence. Nationalism, at its most legitimate is, as Berlin wonderfully described it, “the straightening of bent backs.”
In an essay on Moses Hess, the great 19th century socialist thinker and Zionist, Isaiah Berlin wrote these deeply felt words which clearly sum up what he himself treasured:
“Through his most extreme and radical beliefs there persists a conviction that there is never any duty to maim or impoverish oneself for the sake of an abstract ideal; that nobody can, or should, be required to vivisect himself, to throw away that which affords him the deepest spiritual satisfaction known to human beings – the right to self-expression, to personal relationships, to the love of familiar places or forms of life,
of beautiful things, or the roots and symbols of one’s own, or one’s family, or one’s past. He believed that nobody should be made to sacrifice his own individual pattern of the analyzable relationships – the central emotional or intellectual experiences – of which human lives are compounded, to offer them up, even as a temporary expedient, for the sake of some tidy solution, deduced from abstract and impersonal premises, some form of life derived from an alien source, imposed upon men by artificial means, and felt to be the mechanical application of some general rule to a concrete situation for which it was not made.”
Berlin never ceased arguing in his brilliant lectures and in his books that one’s life must be conducted on the assumption that to deny what inwardly one knows to be true, to do violence to the facts for whatever tactical or doctrinal motive, is at once degrading and doomed to futility.
May the generous and undogmatic spirit of Isaiah Berlin enter into those who govern us – and indeed into every one of us who seek the good of Guyana.